United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Kerry on Disappearance of Robert Levinson

            On March 9, Secretary of State Kerry asked Iran to work cooperatively to ensure the safe return of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson to the United States. Levinson disappeared from Iran’s Kish Island on March 9, 2007. He was reportedly investigating cigarette smuggling while working as a private investigator. Levinson’s family first received evidence that he was alive in November 2010. In the 54-second video, Levinson asked for a U.S. government response to his captors' demands, which have not been publicized. In the past, Iranian officials have said they are ready to cooperate with the United States on this case. The following is Kerry’s statement on the seventh anniversary of Levinson’s disappearance.

            Robert Levinson disappeared seven years ago from Kish Island, Iran, during a business trip. He is one of the longest held American citizens in history.
            Nothing can bring those lost years – more than 2,500 days in all – back to all those who love him. Mr. Levinson’s disappearance has been heart-wrenching for his wife and children, who feel his absence especially deeply at the many family milestones missed these past seven years.
            The United States remains committed to the safe return of Mr. Levinson to his family. We appreciate the support and assistance from our international partners as we work to end this awful separation. Given Mr. Levinson’s health, age, and length of time in captivity, we mark this anniversary with a special sense of urgency.
            We respectfully ask the Government of Iran to work cooperatively with us on the investigation into his disappearance so we can ensure his safe return.
            The FBI has announced a $1 million reward for any information that could lead to his safe return. We call on anyone with information about this case to contact the FBI.
            This is the seventh year that Mr. Levinson has spent without his family. We remain committed to the hard work ahead to ensure that it’s his last.

Centrifuges: Key to Final Nuclear Deal

David Albright and Andrea Stricker

            In any nuclear deal, Iran will have to limit the number of centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium, a process that produces fuel for both peaceful nuclear energy and the world’s deadliest weapon. But the exact number is likely to be one of the most contentious issues during the six-month negotiations that finally get into real substance when talks resume in mid-March. Past positions reflect the controversies in brokering a future accord that ensures Tehran does not produce a bomb.
      Iran currently has about 19,000 centrifuges installed at the two pivotal enrichments sites—Natanz, which is near Kashan, and Fordo, which is deep in the mountains near the religious center of Qom. The new cap in a deal with the world’s six major powers will almost surely have to be a small fraction of Iran’s current capability—probably somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 IR-1 centrifuges. IR-1 is the first generation of centrifuges.
      The most telling negotiations about centrifuges took place in 2005, as the international community tried to convert a temporary suspension of Iran’s enrichment program, which had begun in 2003, into a long-term deal. Iran proposed to the three European powers—Britain, France and Germany—an initial cap of 3,000 IR-1 centrifuges. But Tehran also insisted that it be allowed to continue increasing the number of its centrifuges after a relatively short time. Iran’s proposal called for stages:
  Stage 2 —3,000 centrifuges in operation, a cap that would only be in place temporarily.
  Stage 3 —installation of 50,000 centrifuges, the number envisioned for Natanz, then the only enrichment site.
  Stage 4 —operation of all 50,000, alongside the parliament’s approval of the Additional Protocol, which allows complementary inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and makes hiding nuclear activities and facilities more difficult. 
            The Europeans rejected Iran’s proposal. The European Union had instead offered to supply a power reactor and all the enriched uranium fuel, which would nullify the need for any centrifuges at Natanz. In July 2005, Tehran indicated it might modify its offer, but it would not budge on the key issue of synchronizing the number of centrifuges at Natanz to the domestic production of enough enriched uranium for a large nuclear power reactor—another way of increasing the number of centrifuges to 50,000.
      The deadlock over numbers ultimately contributed to a breakdown in talks. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005, Iran ended the suspension of its program. It then resumed centrifuge installation and operation. Tensions soon mounted with the international community, producing four U.N. resolutions and a host of other unilateral sanctions by the United States, the European Union and other Western governments.
            The danger today is déjà vu. The new talks center on the same issues explored nine years ago. Although Tehran has engaged in the most serious diplomacy to date, its rhetoric today mirrors its position in 2005. The chief negotiator in 2005 is today Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.
            The talks today involve more players, including the United States, Russia and China, and tougher terms in light of Iran’s advances in the intervening decade. Washington, with European backing, not only wants a cap on the number of centrifuges. It also wants the cap to last far longer—more like 20 years. Their argument is that Iran has no need to produce any fuel. It already has produced enough for the small Tehran Research Reactor, which makes isotopes for cancer treatment and other medical uses.
     In other words, the world’s six major powers believe Iran’s ambitions far exceed its current needs. Iran only has one nuclear reactor for energy at Bushehr, which was built by Russia. The enriched uranium that fuels the Bushehr reactor also is provided by Russia. In general, any nuclear deal would also allow Iran to more economically and reliable obtain the fuel it might need from abroad for additional reactors.
            Any meaningful deal will almost certainly require that Iran accepts limits on its centrifuges—in terms of number and the quality of uranium they enrich—that will in turn increase the so-called break-out time. Break-out time is the timespan required to produce enough weapon-grade uranium to produce a weapon. Currently, the estimated breakout times are dangerously short.
            For negotiations to succeed, Tehran would probably have to accept a limited centrifuge program where the break-out time to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb would be in the range of six to 12 months. Another key condition would be capping at a relatively low level the amount of uranium enriched up to near 20 percent— the material that can most rapidly be further enriched to weapon-grade. In effect, these two conditions translate into a long-term cap on Iran’s centrifuges of no more than 4,000 IR-1 centrifuges. Both are central to achieving an irreversible long-term agreement.
David Albright is the president and Andrea Stricker a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
Click here to read Albright and Stricker’s Iran Primer chapter on the nuclear program.
Photo credits: Catherine Ashton and Javad Zarif by Das österreichische Außenministerium via Flickr, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad via New York Times/President.ir, Bushehr via NuclearEnergy.ir


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Realistic Options for Final Nuclear Deal

            A final nuclear deal that satisfies both Iran and the world’s six major powers will require hard compromises on five key issues, according to a brief from the Arms Control Association. “If either side pushes unrealistic requirements on the other side, the chances for a negotiated resolution will decrease and the chances of a conflict and a nuclear-armed Iran will increase,” warn Daryl Kimball and Kelsey Davenport. In the brief below, they outline realistic options to deal with five pivotal issues —uranium enrichment, the Arak heavy water reactor, increased inspections, and suspected nuclear weapons research.

Uranium Enrichment Capacity
            The extent to which Iran is willing to reduce the capacity and the scope of its uranium enrichment program is key. The agreement reached in Geneva on Nov. 24 states that the program should be "consistent with practical needs."

            In other words, Iran's enrichment capacity and stockpile of material should not exceed the fuel supply needs of its nuclear power and research reactor programs, which for now are close to zero but could grow in the coming years.

            Iran provided the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with preliminary information on the selection of sites for up to 16 new nuclear power reactors and a light water research reactor. These reactors would, if built, require a reliable supply of enriched uranium fuel from abroad or through indigenous production. However, these reactors are many years away from reality. 

      The United States and its P5+1 partners will point out that Iran currently has very limited or nonexistent needs for enriched uranium fuel for energy production. Today, Iran has one research reactor (the Tehran Research Reactor) that produces medical isotopes and Iran has enough material to fuel that reactor for years to come; Iran also has a light-water power reactor (Bushehr), which uses fuel supplied by Russia under a ten year arrangement that could be renewed. 

            In the near term, the P5+1 powers will and should push for a significant reduction in Iran's overall enrichment capacity from 10,000 operating, first generation (IR-1) centrifuges at two sites to approximately half that number or less. Even with 4,000 or fewer first generation centrifuges at one site, Iran would have more than sufficient capacity for its foreseeable "practical" nuclear power reactor fuel needs.

            By rolling back Iran's enrichment capacity to such levels, limiting enrichment to reactor grade levels (up to five percent) and placing caps on Iran's enriched uranium stockpile, the time necessary to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb would be extended to six months or more. Such an effort could be readily detected within days with the increased monitoring and verification measures that are likely to be imposed as part of the comprehensive deal.

            If Iran tried to "break out," it would take still longer for Iran to amass enough bomb-grade material for additional weapons, assemble a nuclear device, possibly conduct a nuclear explosive test of the warhead design, and develop a reliable means of delivering the weapons. This would give the international community ample warning and time to respond to Iran's actions. 

            Iran is also developing new and more efficient centrifuges and will likely resist any P5+1 effort to limit its ability to develop and deploy such centrifuges. Once operational, these more advanced centrifuges, such as IR2-Ms, could enrich uranium much more efficiently. 

            Consequently, the two sides will likely set limits on the overall capacity of Iran's enrichment program (as measured in "separative work units (SWU)") rather than the total number of centrifuges. This would allow Iran to continue its research and development activities under strict IAEA monitoring, which it views as a necessary part of the comprehensive deal. 

            Some P5+1 states would also like to see Iran mothball the underground Fordow uranium enrichment facility, which is less vulnerable to an airstrike, while Iran will resist such an outcome. The two sides might compromise by agreeing that Iran will effectively halt any significant enrichment at Fordow and convert it to a "research-only" facility for uses including testing and developing advanced centrifuges.

The Arak Reactor and the Plutonium Path to the Bomb
            The P5+1 states have argued that Iran should abandon the unfinished Arak 40MW heavy water reactor, but Iran has resisted such an outcome.

      Heavy water-moderated reactors are well suited to the production of plutonium suitable for nuclear weapons. Arak is some time away from completion and Iran does not have (and says it has no intention to build) a reprocessing facility that would be necessary to extract plutonium from the spent fuel. Nevertheless, the Arak reactor clearly represents a significant, long-term proliferation threat that must be addressed in the comprehensive deal. 

            One compromise that would effectively neutralize Arak's plutonium potential would be to convert Arak to a more proliferation-resistant light-water reactor, but this option would require Iran to abandon its original heavy-water technology choice and would be strongly resisted by Iran, given its indigenous development of the reactor. 

            However, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told Iran's official English-language Press TV in an interview Feb. 5 that Iran may agree to other modifications of the Arak heavy-water reactor near Arak.

            "We can do some design change--in other words, make some change in the design in order to produce less plutonium in this reactor and in this way allay the worries and mitigate the concerns," Salehi said.

            Some of those options could be to reduce the reactor from 40MW to perhaps 10MW. Another option is to use uranium fuel enriched to 3.5 percent or 20 percent (instead of natural uranium fuel) in order to reduce the reactor's output of plutonium that is suitable for weapons. While fueling the reactor with enriched uranium would increase Iran's "practical needs" for enriched uranium, the plutonium produced in the spent fuel from the Arak reactor would pose less of a concern for weapons.

            An additional option would be to require that all spent fuel from the Arak reactor to be verifiably removed for disposition in a third country--possibly Russia--to prevent it from becoming a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons. Russia is already responsible for removing the spent fuel produced by the Bushehr reactor.

Tougher International Inspections
            If Iran were to pursue nuclear weapons in the future, it would most likely try to do so by means of a secret program carried out at undisclosed facilities.

      Consequently, the P5+1 will also seek to persuade Iran to allow even more extensive IAEA inspection authority to guard against a secret weapons program under the terms of the Additional Protocol to its existing comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA. These inspections allow the IAEA to access non-declared sites without prior notification, which is a strong deterrent against any clandestine nuclear weapons work. Once approved by the Iranian parliament, the duration of the Additional Protocol would be unlimited.

            The P5+1 will also seek "Additional Protocol- plus" inspection measures for an extended period of time to provide still more confidence to the international community that Iran's nuclear program is being used for entirely peaceful purposes.

Resolving Concerns About "Possible Military Dimensions"
            To resolve longstanding questions about suspected weapons-related experiments that may have been conducted in secret in past years, Iran will also need to fully cooperate with the IAEA investigation on these experiments.

            The IAEA laid out its concerns about the experiments and other concerns about the completeness of Iran's nuclear declaration in an annex to its November 2011 report to the agency's Board of Governors. Shortly after the November 2011 report, the IAEA and Iran began negotiating an approach to resolve these concerns. However, no progress was made until Iran and the IAEA agreed on a path forward to guide the agency's investigations. This breakthrough came on Nov. 11, 2013, when the IAEA and Iran agreed to a new Framework for Cooperation that committed both sides to cooperate to resolve the agency's outstanding concerns. The agreement also specified the first six steps that Iran would take over the course of the following three months. 

            While these steps provided the IAEA with necessary information and access to nuclear sites to verify Iran's nuclear activities, they did not include any of the contentious experiments with possible military dimensions. 

            The successful completion of these actions, however, is building trust and cooperation. When Iran and the IAEA agreed on the next set of steps for Tehran to take during talks on Feb. 8-9, Iran and the agency finally began to address the concerns about activities with possible military dimensions. One of the seven new steps that Iran agreed to take will require it to provide information on exploding bridge wire detonators to the IAEA. Exploding bridge wire detonators can be used to trigger nuclear weapons, but they also can be used for conventional explosives and civilian applications.

            While other experiments with possible military dimensions must be addressed and soon, progress on the bridge wire detonators issue would be an important first step toward resolving these issues. 

            In the coming months, the IAEA and the P5+1 will insist that Iran provide all the information and cooperation that will be necessary to enable the IAEA to determine with confidence that whether such activities occurred or not and whether they were intended for a weapons program or not, and that no such weapons-related work continues.

            While implementation of the Iran/IAEA framework has gone smoothly thus far, it is very likely that the investigation will continue for some time beyond the six-months to a year timeframe for the negotiation of the final phase P5+1/Iran agreement.

            In addition, it is possible that the final phase P5+1/Iran agreement will specify that Iran will not henceforth conduct certain research and development activities with nuclear-weaponization applications, such as those identified in the annex of the IAEA's November 2011 report.

Sanctions Relief
            To secure a "final phase" agreement, the P5+1 will need to phase-out the tough multilateral nuclear sanctions regime now in place, including the international oil and financial sanctions that are devastating Iran's economy. Iran will likely insist that with each of the successive steps that it undertakes as part of a comprehensive agreement, there will be commensurate actions to suspend and then lift sanctions.

            This step-for-step approach will require a new UN Security Council Resolution on Iran's nuclear program and positive, follow-up actions by the European Union states and approval by Congress of revised legislation that unwinds U.S. nuclear-related sanctions that impact other nations' dealing with Iran.

            Negotiating an agreement along these lines will be difficult and implementing it will be very challenging, but a sustainable arrangement to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran is achievable.

Myths and Misperceptions

            Some policy makers and observers will likely continue to push for outcomes that are not realistic or necessary to stop Iran short of building nuclear weapons. For instance, some critics of the current diplomatic negotiations, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [see tweet below], argue that the only "acceptable" outcome is one that requires Iran agree to the permanent suspension of all uranium enrichment and the dismantlement of the Natanz, Fordow, and Arak facilities.

            According to the U.S. intelligence community Iran has had, at least since 2007, the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it were to choose to do so. That capacity can be reduced but not entirely eliminated, even it Iran were required to dismantle its uranium enrichment machines and facilities.

            A "zero-enrichment" outcome would be ideal from a nonproliferation perspective and may have been conceivable in 2005-2006 when Iran agreed to suspend enrichment work and had less than 300 centrifuges.

             But today, demands that Iran permanently halt uranium enrichment are unrealistic and unattainable. A deal that bars Iran from enriching uranium for peaceful purposes would be unsustainable politically inside Iran, and such an outcome is not necessary to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran.

            Others argue that allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium is counter to the U.S. policy position that does not recognize the right to enrich as part of the NPT, especially if states have engaged in illicit nuclear-weapons related research. However, Iran believes it has a right to pursue as a member of the NPT, which refers to the "inalienable right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy...."

            The two sides did not agree on the nature of Iran's nuclear energy "rights" in their Nov. 24 first phase agreement, but the P5+1 recognized that Iran already has a nuclear enrichment program and would insist on retaining some enrichment capacity. As such, as part of the broad parameters of the final deal, the parties agreed to negotiate practical limits on the scope of the enrichment program and additional safeguards on ongoing Iranian enrichment activities at its Natanz and Fordow facilities, in order to reduce Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities. 

            Another misperception is that the UN Security Council's earlier demands for Iran to "suspend" uranium enrichment require that a final phase agreement must end all Iranian enrichment activity.

            In reality, the purpose of the demand for suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran under existing U.N. Security Council resolutions is to prevent Iran from accumulating more LEU until it restores confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program--not to permanently cease all uranium enrichment activities. (See: "What the UN Security Council Resolutions Say (and Don't Say) About Iran's Nuclear Program," Dec. 4, 2013.)

            The Nov. 24 agreement effectively accomplishes that goal by capping the total amount of 3.5 percent material and it goes further by requiring Iran to neutralize its 20 percent stockpiles and to cease all enrichment to 20 percent levels while a comprehensive agreement is negotiated.

Bottom Line: A "Win-Win" Deal to Guard Against a Nuclear-Armed Iran
            To guard against a nuclear-armed Iran and avoid a future confrontation over its nuclear program, the P5+1 and Iran should promptly implement the first-phase agreement and expeditiously negotiate a long-term final-phase agreement on the basis of realistic and achievable goals that meets their core requirements and respects the bottom-line needs of the other side.

            A "win" for the P5+1 countries is a comprehensive agreement that: 1) establishes verifiable limits on Iran's program that, taken together, substantially increase the time it would take for Iran to break out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and build nuclear weapons; 2) increases the ability to promptly detect and effectively respond to a breakout; and 3) decrease Iran's incentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the future.

            A "win" for Iran's President Hassan Rouhani would be to: 1) preserve key elements of its nuclear program (including some uranium enrichment and R & D); 2) protect Iran's "right" under the NPT to a peaceful nuclear program; and 3) remove international, nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.

            If either side pushes unrealistic requirements on the other side, the chances for a negotiated resolution will decrease and the chances of a conflict and a nuclear-armed Iran will increase.

            Any resort to military force against Iran's nuclear sites would, at best, only delay Iran's nuclear program and at worst, would lead to a wider conflict and very likely prompt Iran to openly pursue nuclear weapons.

            A final phase agreement will require hard compromises on the part of both sides, but it is the far more preferable and effective way to resolve the long-running dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions.--Daryl G. Kimball and Kelsey Davenport
Click here for the full report.

Khamenei Urges Action on Environment

      On March 5, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei urged government agencies to coordinate their response to Iran’s pressing environmental challenges. “If you do not act decisively, some people will continue to take advantage of the situation [and continue polluting],” he said in an address marking Tree-Planting Day. Iran has three of the world’s five most polluted cities in terms of air pollution. And more than two-thirds of the country’s land—up to 118 million hectares—is rapidly turning into desert, Iran’s Forest, Range and Watershed Management Organization reported in mid-2013. The following is a translation of Khamenei’s speech. Click here for more information on threats to Iran’s environment.

First, I deem it necessary to express my gratitude to all those people who are active in the area of improving the environment. Second, I ask all officials and all the people to attach great significance to the issue of green areas. I ask all of them to prevent the country, the people and their lives from being deprived of this divine assistance and this very great divine blessing - which is plants, trees and the like.
The issue of the environment is very important. The issue of the haze and dust particles, which come to the country from the outside, is really a very important issue. A few days ago, the Minister of Agriculture delivered a report to me about this issue and the damage that it causes. It is necessary for all the officials of the country and all different executive organizations to cooperate with one another in a fundamental way in order to prevent this damage. This [dust] will cause great damage to the country. Recently, a report has been delivered to me about these haze particles. This report is warning and it is necessary to pay attention to it.
I ask the people to respect trees and attach great significance to the environment. The slogan, "Each Iranian Should Plant a Tree" which is common among the people is a good slogan. The people should do their best to plant more trees on such days. Both the people and officials in particular should prevent the hands, which try to destroy the environment. They should not allow our forests, grasslands and the environment in cities and suburban areas to be destroyed.
If you do not act in a powerful and decisive way, the Alborz mountain range will turn into iron and cement all the way up to the peaks. That is to say, if you do not act decisively, some people will continue to take advantage of the situation. Of course, you mentioned that you are working on this. This is very good, but this should be visibly seen in practice so that people know fundamental measures are being adopted. I hope that, by Allah's favor, you will be successful.

US General on Iran: Challenge & Opportunity

      On March 5, U.S. Central Command General Lloyd Austin III cited countering “malign Iranian influence” as one of 10 priority efforts for 2014 in his statement to the House Armed Services Committee. But he also noted the “unprecedented opportunity” for diplomatic talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers to resolve the nuclear dispute. Central Command’s area of responsibility includes 20 countries from Egypt to Afghanistan. Austin emphasized that Tehran’s growing missile, cyber warfare and counter-maritime capabilities pose “a very real and significant threat” to the interests of the United States and its partners — especially the Sunni Gulf states. The following are excerpts from his statement on Iran.

Challenge (Iran): We continue to pay close attention to Iran's actions. As a result of the understandings reached with the P5+1, Iran has taken specific and verifiable actions for the first time in nearly a decade that halted progress on its nuclear program and rolled it back in key respects, stopping the advance of the program and introducing increased transparency into Iran's nuclear activities. Despite this progress, significant concerns do remain. In addition to the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, there is growing anxiety in the region and beyond concerning the malign activity being perpetrated by the Iranian Threat Network (ITN), which consists of Qods Force, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, regional surrogates, and proxies. We are seeing a significant increase in Iranian proxy activity in Syria, principally through Iran's support of LH and the regime. This is contributing to the humanitarian crisis and significantly altered political-societal demographic balances within and between the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. There is also widespread unease with respect to the counter- maritime, theater ballistic missile and cyber capabilities possessed by Iran. Each of these represents a very real and significant threat to U.S. and our partners' interests. Going forward, we should look to employ nuanced approaches in dealing with these distinct challenges, while providing the means necessary to enable our partners to do their part to address them, both militarily and diplomatically.
Opportunity (Iran): Progress towards a comprehensive solution that would severely restrict Iran's nuclear weapons 'breakout' capacity has the potential to moderate certain objectionable Iranian activities in non-nuclear areas (e.g., ITN, theater ballistic missile, cyber). If the P5+1 are able to achieve a long-term resolution with respect to Iran's nuclear program, that would represent a step in the right direction, and present an unprecedented opportunity for positive change.
...If the flow of foreign fighters could be curbed significantly, and the support provided to the regime by Lebanese Hezbollah (LH), Iranian Qods Forces and others was stopped or greatly reduced, it could lead to a break in the stalemate and an eventual resolution to the conflict.
Click here for the full statement.

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